The Rockefeller Institute recently examined ballot initiatives in Oregon and Washington, DC, that would decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms (“magic mushrooms”). In this episode of Policy Outsider, guest Heather Trela, director of operations and fellow at the Institute, provides an update on the outcome of magic mushroom and marijuana ballot initiatives, discusses how the liberalization of marijuana throughout the US provided a blueprint for magic mushroom advocates, and shares where cities, states, and the federal government might be headed with drug policy.


Heather Trela, Director of Operations and Fellow, Rockefeller Institute of Government

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Has Marijuana Provided a Blueprint for Magic Mushrooms?


  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 0:04

    Welcome to Policy Outsider. I’m your host, Alex Morse. The Rockefeller Institute recently examined the push to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, otherwise known as magic mushrooms and analyze where there were decriminalization initiatives on the ballot during the 2020 election. Guest Heather Trela, director of operations and fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, joins us today to provide an update on what the ballot initiatives were, which cities and states are exploring laws and reforms related to magic mushrooms and other drugs, and how the liberalization of marijuana throughout the US provided a blueprint for advocates of magic mushrooms. Coming up next.

    Alexander Morse 1:06

    Today, I’m with Heather Trela, director of operations and fellow at the Rockefeller Institute. Hi, Heather, thank you for joining us today.

    Heather Trela 1:14

    Hi, Alex. Good to be here.

    Alexander Morse 1:16

    So we recently had an election and you were focusing on something other than just the presidential race. Why don’t you tell us what you were paying attention to that Tuesday evening?

    Heather Trela 1:27

    Yes, while everyone else was waiting to find out who was president, I was watching ballot initiatives. Drugs were on the ballot. There were five states that were considering medical or adult-use marijuana and one state and one city that were looking at decriminalizing magic mushrooms. And those results we knew the day of, so that was a good thing to be watching on election night.

    Alexander Morse 1:51

    Let’s talk about different drugs and what happened that Tuesday night.

    Heather Trela 1:55

    I’ll start off with magic mushrooms. The newcomer, magic mushrooms, were on the ballot in both Washington DC and the state of Oregon. Washington DC was a decriminalization measure that would make arrest or police funds being used for prosecuting those with small possessions of magic mushrooms the lowest possible priority for police enforcement. In Oregon, we saw two different initiatives. One was a more general initiative to decriminalize most Schedule 1 drugs, small quantities, and there was a second ballot initiative that would allow for the use of magic mushrooms in therapeutic settings under a licensed facilitator to deal with trauma or other additional therapeutic needs.

    Alexander Morse 2:45

    So you mentioned that magic mushrooms can be administered by a facilitator for therapeutic use. I guess what I want to know is what exactly are magic mushrooms?

    Heather Trela 2:58

    Magic mushrooms, that will not shock you, are not the official name for this particular drug. It’s the common name for psilocybin mushrooms, which are fungi or mushroom that contain psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychoactive or hallucinogenic compound. When you hear someone saying they’re on a trip, it’s a hallucinogenic and it could be magic mushrooms. It has shown potential therapeutic qualities for people suffering with PTSD, depression, and other similar conditions.

    Alexander Morse 3:34

    Earlier you said that magic mushrooms are a Schedule 1 drug. Can you remind listeners what that means?

    Heather Trela 3:40

    The federal government in 1970 passed the Controlled Substances Act, which classifies drugs by schedule. Schedule 1 drugs are viewed as having no currently accepted medical use and having a high potential for abuse. So in shorthand, the most dangerous drugs, magic mushrooms would fall into that and marijuana falls under that as well.

    Alexander Morse 4:01

    So Oregon and Washington, DC had initiatives on the ballot. Have any other cities or states done anything with magic mushrooms previously?

    Heather Trela 4:11

    Yes, it’s been a big push since 2019. Prior to this election day, there were four cities that have decriminalized magic mushrooms. Denver, Colorado was the first in May of 2019. That was followed by Oakland and Santa Cruz, both cities in California. And then just recently, Ann Arbor, Michigan, in September of 2020, decriminalized magic mushrooms.

    Alexander Morse 4:36

    It sounds like the push for magic mushrooms is beginning at the city level, with Oregon being the outlier being the first state to pass something.

    Heather Trela 4:44

    There were some attempts or some activity at the state level in California to potentially also tackle decriminalization, but unfortunately, the ballot initiative method got a little derailed by COVID-19. They couldn’t get the number of signatures that could come back up in the next election.

    Alexander Morse 5:00

    And so in your research in your latest blog titled “Has Marijuana Provided a Blueprint for Magic Mushrooms?,” these cities and states pursuing decriminalization or liberalization of different drugs have largely been following the blueprint laid out by marijuana advocates to achieve passage whether legislatively or at the ballot. Can you walk us through those steps?

    Heather Trela 5:31

    Sure. I think the biggest way that magic mushrooms have benefited from the blueprint of marijuana is that marijuana legalization destigmatized the idea of making a Schedule 1 drug legal. Now, magic mushrooms are not there yet. But that’s part of the piece as well. Marijuana did not go immediately to adult-use, it was done in steps. So one thing magic mushroom proponents have learned is that decriminalization is a good first step. It allows them to get their interests or groups together to influence. It’s not as controversial, it could be framed more easily as a criminal justice reform rather than a drug reform. That allows them to inch their way through and bubble up. For example, Denver decriminalized marijuana before they pushed for adult-use. So sometimes this leads to more for additional activity. Also an important proponent, especially for Oregon but all of the initiatives on the ballot this election year mentioned it, is marijuana used the research that was out there to show that there was a medical use. Like I said, most states started with medical marijuana before they moved to adult-use or recreational. So you’re starting to see additional research being done in academic journals on the benefits of magic mushrooms. Doing that research and then using it to justify why magic mushrooms might be useful. People are a lot more sympathetic to a medical reason than just a recreational/want-to-have-a-good-time reason. The final thing that I wrote about was that all politics are local, even as marijuana moves into state legalization, local governments still play a huge role in how effective those policies are. In states where, I think every state, where adult-use marijuana has been passed, counties often have the option to opt out of not allowing dispensaries or manufacturing or any of the production associated with marijuana in their county. Now they can’t prohibit use, but they can certainly make it harder for their citizens to obtain it. That greatly impacts how effective the state’s laws going to be. How much revenue they’re going to bring in. If you don’t have dispensaries in a quarter of your state that’s going to potentially decrease your expectations of how much revenue you will bring in. By starting on the state level, and marijuana also started on the state level back in the 70s, right after the Controlled Substances Act was passed, there was a first wave of cities that did decriminalize marijuana. A lot of those were rolled back in the 80s when we started the war on drugs, but again, starting at the cities and then bubbling up to the states is not unusual. That’s another lesson that magic mushrooms could have learned from marijuana. One important thing to note, however, is there are some limitations to what magic mushrooms can accomplish potentially. Marijuana usage is way more prevalent in the United States compared to magic mushrooms. Magic mushrooms usually gets lumped into a group with all other hallucinogenics and is a very small percentage of that small percentage. If you look at the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, that’s the most recent data we have, they found only approximately 2 percent of Americans 12 or older reported use of hallucinogenics in the last year, if you go back to 1996, which is when medical marijuana was first passed in California, so around the same part of the movement, that survey found that 12.2 percent of respondents reported marijuana use in the last year. So we’re not talking about the same number of people that potentially have dabbled with marijuana in their lives. That may mean it’s a little more difficult to get the support behind it. You don’t have to use a drug to personally support it. That’s obviously true, but it may impact how quickly this can move forward. You may see magic mushrooms being bundled in with other drugs. That’s actually what happened in, I simplified a bit, in DC. It was not just limited to magic mushrooms. It was similar drugs, not LSD, but all naturally occurring hallucinogenic. You may see more packages like it was in Oregon with all other drugs. There is a reduced usage, which may not have the same push that marijuana has.

    Alexander Morse 9:54

    And so what were the results for magic mushrooms on the ballot?

    Heather Trela 9:58

    Well, all three were actually successful. They passed with significant amount of vote. I did not anticipate the decriminalization of all drugs being passed. I thought that might be a bridge too far for some people, but the people of Oregon disagreed. And so that was passed along with the development of a therapeutic program in Oregon and the decriminalization in Washington, DC.

    Alexander Morse 10:21

    Segueing into marijuana, Heather, as the Rockefeller Institute’s resident marijuana researcher, can you provide an update on what happened at this year’s election?

    Heather Trela 10:32

    There were five states that had marijuana initiatives on the ballot. New Jersey was looking to expand from just medical to adult-use. That passed with about 70 percent of the vote. That was not a surprise. They had tried to do that legislatively and had trouble, so they decided to kick it to the initiative process to give a little more buy-in from the people. Historically, passing marijuana regulations legislatively is a little more tricky. Only two states have done it to date for at least adult-use. South Dakota had a double shot, they had no marijuana laws that were legalized. They passed both medicinal and recreational on the same day. So they’re going to have a totally new system. This is a big outreach too because the Midwest has been a little spotty on marijuana legalization. We’re starting to see inroads. South Dakota is probably considered a more conservative state. So you’re starting to see more inroads into states where you would not initially think marijuana use. It started on the coasts, which is not surprising, but it’s starting to move into the American heartland as well. Montana, also passed adult-use marijuana, another more rural or conservative states. All these passed with more than 50 percent. Obviously, Montana was 57 percent of the vote. Arizona, this was their second try. They tried in 2016 to pass adult-use marijuana, it did not pass. In 2020, they got across the finish line with about 60 percent of the vote. So that’s now legal or will be legal in Arizona. And Mississippi has dipped its toes into medicinal marijuana. Another important inroad for the south. The south has been traditionally not an area where medical or adult-use marijuana has been permitted. This passed pretty overwhelmingly, it was about 74 percent of the vote. All five states wins, across the board.

    Alexander Morse 12:25

    So what does that mean for marijuana legalization in New York?

    Heather Trela 12:28

    I think without COVID, it might have happened in 2020, after the failure in 2019. I think they were poised to try to make that. Obviously, with New York being in the throes of the COVID-19 epidemic during budget season and during legislation, we were focused on other things. I think it’s looking very good for 2021 for a couple reasons. One is it’s always been the devil in the details on this. It’s not a wholesale rejection of adult-use marijuana in New York, it’s more how it’s going to be implemented, where the money is going to go, social justice issues. There are absolutely people who are against this. But for the most part, I think the negotiations broke down over how it was going to be implemented, not whether it’s going to be implemented. Now, New York, like most states, is going to potentially be facing a huge budget crisis after the COVID-19 pandemic. So it would be even more attractive for New York to decide to pass adult-use marijuana for the taxation, especially since we are bordered by three states that have adult-use marijuana—Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Jersey. So even though it’s illegal to go across state lines and buy marijuana, I’m not naive enough to think it does not happen. It would be very attractive for people, especially in the City to go to New Jersey, to buy marijuana at dispensaries. So New York does not want to give up that cash to its surrounding states unnecessarily. But I think there’ll be a financial push to do this that has not been present in the past.

    Alexander Morse 14:08

    You mentioned that you can’t transport marijuana across state lines because it’s a federally illegal drug. Is there any movement on marijuana policy at the federal level?

    Heather Trela 14:21

    We have a new administration coming in and Joe Biden has positioned himself to be a little more open on some marijuana issues. He has embraced decriminalization of marijuana possession, expunging of past records, and potentially even going as far as looking at medical marijuana on the federal level. Now, where he does draw the line is, President-elect Biden has not come out in favor of adult-use marijuana at the federal level, doesn’t mean he’s opposed to it. He’s not bought into that yet. But he’s been a little more open on marijuana than the previous administration, who was not against it but didn’t really take a firm position one way or another. That being said, it’s really going to be at the congressional level where any real movement is going to happen on marijuana federally. When the house was taken over by the Democrats, you started to see more marijuana legislation trickling out previously had been stopped in committee when the Republicans were the dominant party. So the House has already passed the Safe Banking Act, which is an attempt to help the marijuana industry have access to financial institutions because banks have been wary of engaging with a business that is federally illegal because of their licensing. And so this bill would help clarify that and allow for a little more of the same business options for banking that other industries have. That’s passed the House, and it’s been included on several versions of the House’s COVID-19 relief bills, but has never been passed in the Senate. So we still are seeing somewhat of a roadblock in the Senate on marijuana legislation. The big piece of legislation is currently going to come for a vote in, it was delayed but it’s supposed to come for a vote in December, is the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Engagement Act, otherwise known as the MORE Act, which would remove marijuana from the controlled substance act scheduling, and would establish a procedure to expunge previous federal convictions. So this would be a real game changer. This would change the federal status of marijuana. This was originally going to come to a vote in the House in September. But some House members got a little skittish about passing this before the election when there was still not a COVID-19 relief bill passed, that the optics of that might not be ideal. But they seem to be ready to push forward with that in December. Now, again, this probably is going to meet the same fate as the Safe Banking Act, depending on control of the Senate. As we know that’s currently up for grabs based on the two seats that have to go to runoff in Georgia. If Mitch McConnell remains the Senate majority leader, I imagine is going to be more of the same. He has embraced hemp, a crop that is grown in Kentucky, but he has not been on board with any kind of federal movement on marijuana. On the flip side, Senator Chuck Schumer from the state of New York, who is the current minority leader could be majority leader depending on the control flip, has been much more proactive about marijuana legalization or legislation, and actually said this would be a priority for a democratically-controlled Senate. So new president doesn’t have as much to do with it except for potentially attorney general appointments. But for the most part, it’s going to be the congressional power that determines whether or not much happens with marijuana at the federal level.

    Alexander Morse 17:39

    So it sounds like there’s a lot of new developments in terms of research and so for the future analysis for marijuana policy, mushroom policy and other drugs follow Heather Trela and the Rockefeller Institute. Thanks Heather for joining us.

    Heather Trela 17:53

    Thanks, Alex.

    Alexander Morse 17:53

    Thanks again to guest Heather Trela for joining us today to provide an update on the ballot initiatives that feature decriminalization and legalization efforts of marijuana, magic mushrooms, and other types of drugs. Be sure to follow Heather’s and the Rockefeller Institute’s research for the latest in public policy developments. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse 19:19

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at or by following RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question or comment or idea? Email us at [email protected].

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